Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was here this week to push along the Israeli-Palestinian talks; but this visit, which not so long ago would have sent ripples of political excitement (and for some in Israel, consternation and anxiety) throughout the land, was barely noticed in the local media. True, international and even Israeli attention was fixed upon faraway Denver. True, closer to home, our popular press was caught up with a terrible tragedy—the story of little Rose, a girl of four, apparently murdered and cast in the river by her paternal grandfather (who was already, as it turns out, living with her mother, his former daughter-in-law)—the sort of horror we would have associated with others, not with Israeli or Jewish life: How wrong we were to think that “it couldn’t happen here.”
Still, there was more to the manner in which the Rice visit was treated than the mere fact that there were more titillating tales to tell. This marginalization (which may, in fact, be beneficial) is rooted in the nature of the process that she came to move forward. The paradoxes abound, and there is much they can teach us:
- To begin with, with little fanfare, a new pattern of negotiations has emerged that has already gone much further than many expected when the process was launched at Annapolis. Teams from both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, meet almost daily. Intensive talks are held between Foreign Minister (and prospective prime minister) Tzippi Livni and her Palestinian interlocutor, Ahmed Qurei (Abu ‘Ala). At the highest level, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) meet regularly, often without any prodding or even mediation. Whereas the Clinton Administration invested great effort in bringing together Israeli leaders and Yasir Arafat, with little to show for it, the current relationship is much closer than at any time in the past and, given the role of truly moderate voices like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, more likely to bear fruit. And yet the Palestinians, and many others, even in Israel, openly yearn for a greater American role (and accuse the present administration of dropping the ball.) At the root of this paradox lies the thinly veiled expectation that “the world”—i.e., the U.S.—will coerce Israel into giving ground above and beyond the present (far-reaching) offers.
- What Israel has been willing to put on the table is kept secret—not least, because of the extreme political sensitivity involved. (Some of Olmert’s coalition partners and cabinet ministers might bolt if they face, prematurely, the full scope of Israeli concessions.) Still, there have been enough informed leaks to form an outline of the emerging deal:
- Well over 90 percent of the West Bank, as well as all of Gaza, will constitute (when conditions allow; this is to be a “shelf agreement” that can only be implemented when Abbas regains control of Gaza, which is to say, not anytime soon) the future Palestinian state. There will be a secure transportation corridor that will connect the two parts without dissecting Israel in two. For the percentage of the West Bank that will be annexed to Israel—where most of the settlers now live in “blocs”—there will be some territorial compensation in the form of (empty) areas in the Negev, at the expense of Israel proper.
- A certain number of refugees may be allowed into Israel for humanitarian reasons; there are some ideas being discussed as to who might be eligible (only “original” refugees from 1948—i.e., people who are no longer likely to raise a family) and various reports about the scope. But clearly, there will be no sweeping recognition of the so-called “right of return.” There may be differences of nuance and substance on this question between Olmert’s track and Livni’s: The latter is adamant that the Jewish nature of the State of Israel is a paramount consideration.
- Tight security arrangements will ensure that the Palestinian state will remain officially demilitarized, but with paramilitary forces able to fight terrorism. Israel will retain certain security rights in the West Bank, and for the foreseeable future, a role in the Jordan Valley, ensuring that there is a wedge between Palestine and the Hashemite Kingdom.
- Jerusalem, except for some outlying Arab areas that may be handed over to PA governance, may well be left for the next stage (which may or may not come to be), as no agreement is now likely about the permanent disposition of the Holy Basin and the Old City.
- The Palestinians, as it happens, are just happy enough with the progress already made to demand that it be enshrined in an American document that would serve as a point of departure for the next administration, whereas Israeli policy has always been that nothing is to be summed up until all is agreed. And yet, paradoxically (again) the Palestinians are also complaining loudly that nothing of real value is happening, and they are about to lose hope. Here the root of the paradox lies within a basic tenet of Palestinian public policy: As the victims, as the weaker party, they must never compromise on (their interpretation of) “international legitimacy”—i.e., as they see it, the 1967 lines, Jerusalem, and the return of the refugees “to their homes.” This may differ in substance from what happens behind closed doors, in negotiating rooms, but the test of which version will prevail is yet to come.
- The level of violence is, in fact, at a significant low. Despite an occasional Qassam being fired, in breach of the “tahdi’a” agreement, there has been no loss of life—and other than the individual rampages in Jerusalem, almost no major terrorist attacks have taken place for a year. Economic conditions are improving; progress is being made in training the PA security forces; Israel felt confident enough to release, in time for Rice’s visit, 199 convicted terrorists (two of them murderers who already had served long terms) as a gesture to Abbas. Despite all this, the threat of violence still hangs in the air, as the Palestinian negotiators mutter darkly about dismantling the PA and inducing chaos, and on the Israeli side, the fear of a surge in Hamas and PIJ activity restrains the IDF when it comes to removing checkpoints and other security measures, and keeps alive the debate as to whether a large-scale operation in Gaza might become inevitable at some point. In this troubling respect, external factors play a role in feeding the paradox: the example set by Hezbollah in Lebanon; the failure of the moderate forces in the Arab world in their struggle to impose their will in Lebanon and the rise of Syria; and, above all, Iran’s ascendancy as a regional (and in Tehran’s fervid imagination, a global) power.
What all of this adds up to is a problem, some would say a failure, of leadership. Abbas is a weak reed, and his word barely runs beyond the confines of the formal power structure in Ramallah. The prospects of a reversal in Gaza are dimmer than ever; prominent Fatah clans (behind the slogans, much of Palestinian, and Iraqi, politics can be traced to family rivalries worthy of a Mario Puzo novel) continue to fight; and on the Israeli side, Olmert is a lame duck, and his ability to impose his will on the settlers’ community—as any Israeli leader may need to do to be able to move forward—is at its lowest point. Even if there were a prospect of much more intensive American involvement, there would be little that could be done to push them both beyond where they have gone already: Patience, worn thin as it may be, is still better than a rush to burden the two political leaders with what they cannot carry out.